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February 8, 2013

'Identity Thief' steals lots of laughs, but when it gets sad, it's criminal

Here’s a rule of comedy, proven scene by scene in “Identity Thief”: Anarchic humor succeeds in inverse proportion to sentimentality.

When the film shows cheerful, conscienceless sociopath Diana (Melissa McCarthy) ripping off easygoing accountant Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), it’s a hoot.

When it suddenly begins to inspire pity for Diana, product of a broken home and eternally susceptible to a child’s plea for her daddy, it’s limp as month-old celery.

The movie divides almost exactly into those halves, though the leads’ charm and chemistry carries it past every jolt in the plot. Director Seth Gordon, who worked with better material in “Horrible Bosses,” can’t quite sustain the initial premise or the pace. (Another rule: One-idea comedies ought to clock in at 95 to 100 minutes, not 110.)

Sandy has a terrific job in Colorado, a happy wife (Amanda Peet), two loving daughters and a third on the way. One day, Diana cons him into giving her his Social Security number and date of birth over the phone. She falsifies credit cards and a driver’s license in his name in Florida, defaults on huge bills, gets arrested and jumps bail.

Now the Denver cops grab Sandy and tell him the only way he can clear his name is to go to Florida himself and bring her back, so they can arrest her in Denver. He catches up to her, promising no police involvement if she’ll explain things to his boss, and they bond on the road trip back.

Hmmmreading that, it sounds idiotic. It didn’t, at the time, as I was laughing too hard at McCarthy’s rapid patter and Bateman’s slow-burn reactions. But it’s no dumber than the idea that a first-rate accountant – which Sandy is, according to all his co-workers – would give a stranger personal information with no evidence she should have it.

In fact, the whole movie is about that stupid. Where in the world can an unknown guy with a forged credit card and no personal identification get a suite in a luxury hotel? Nowhere! Hang on a minute: I’m going up to the top of this review to change that third star to a half-star.

OK, I’m back. I couldn’t drop the rating lower, because the dialogue in Craig Mazin’s script crackles at its best, and the supporting characters (led by Robert Patrick as a grizzled skip chaser) have bizarrely funny moments.

Moviegoers already know Bateman as a credible, sympathetic straight man, especially in roles where he breaks out of a calm routine – whether one established through timidity or placid happiness – and goes a little crazy.

McCarthy, who has been wackily funny in supporting parts, will be the revelation for most of us: Not only can she carry a lead, but she handles heartfelt moments of joy and sorrow. They don’t belong in this movie, of course, but they’re still impressive.

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